The Lexus recipe for success: Hide the Toyota mass-market roots under the Lexus logo by filling a car with amenities and luxury trappings, a more supple ride, and a quiet, soothing cabin. Even a pro can't sniff out the Camry beneath an ES sedan. But with the new, compact NX, the souffle falls. The car doesn't coddle you like the wildly successful Lexus RX -- the midsized crossover vehicle that started the whole craze. Nor does it thrill you with BMW-like handling. It just feels like an upmarket Toyota RAV4.
With a snout borrowed from a large-mouth bass and a body with more creases than a churro pastry, the NX is the most un-Lexus Lexus we've tested. From a brand that made its bones building vanilla-mobiles, the NX is a swing in the other direction.
But it's not convincing, and much of that has to do with its RAV4 underpinnings. Nothing against Toyota's super-popular small SUV, but luxury is not in its DNA.
The NX's looks promise derring-do performance, and its handling is indeed sharp. It's responsive compared with a typical Lexus, but handling and braking are a notch below competitors from BMW and Audi. And the NX doesn't deliver the quiet, calm, and serene ride you expect from a Lexus. Instead, it's as firm and controlled as an IRS audit. The performance doesn't match the looks -- like when a peach-fuzz sibling borrows his big brother's leather jacket, the appearance isn't quite right.
Inside the cabin, the NX once again falls short of Lexus standards. You're not cosseted with parlor-room luxury. Many parts and panels look and feel cheap, costing the NX points for fit and finish. The bolstered seats are supportive, but lumbar-support adjustment is limited. The rear is adequate for two. The cargo area is also quite limited, making us question the "utility" part of this SUV.
The very tight driving position is made worse by claustrophobically small windows. Sure, they look cool from the outside, but that means poor visibility from the driver's seat. We'd get the blind-spot monitoring system.
The 300 version marks Toyota's foray into turbocharged four-cylinder engines; the German brands have used them for a while. The 235-hp four-cylinder delivered 24 mpg in our tests; it accelerated to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, both good numbers The NX is also offered as a hybrid, with a total output of 194 hp from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder-plus electric drive. It got the best fuel economy of any SUV we've tested -- an impressive 29 mpg overall. It can loaf in EV mode at low speeds.
Unfortunately, the 300h hybrid is weak when you need to accelerate; the engine annoyingly howls like 4-year-old denied a juice box. That stems from the nature of its continuously variable transmission (CVT), which holds engine revs, contributing to the interior racket.
The NX is saddled with a touchpad controller, included with the optional navigation system. But the user interface requires dexterous fingers to make selections -- not easy or intuitive when driving. The climate controls are packed together, and the radio's volume and tuning knobs hide beneath an overhanging ledge.
Even though pricing starts around $35,000, option packages quickly extend the bill. Green-minded buyers will have to pony up more for the hybrid model. Still, a comparably equipped NX runs about $4,000 cheaper than a BMW X3 or an Audi Q5.
The small luxury SUV field is as crowded as the motor-vehicle department after a long holiday, with more than a dozen legitimate contenders. But buyers expecting a proper small SUV from Lexus will be disappointed.